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Neorealism’s Theory of Politics and Warfare Essay

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Updated: May 6th, 2020


Neorealism is one of the well-known theories of the origin of war. This essay will analyze this particular theory and explain its importance. Neorealists argue that people fight as a way of preserving the power they already have, gain more power, or both. In addition, the paper will highlight some of the arguments that have been put forward and against this theory in terms of explaining the origins of war efficiently.


Newmann explains that scholars subscribed to the Neorealist school of thought believe that power is the most crucial factor in International Relations (19). Therefore, the more power a state has, the more influence it has over other countries. Currently, the United States of America is believed to be the most powerful nation on earth. Thus, according to Neorealist, the US has so much power that it is looked up to in solving world problems, bailing poor countries out, and setting standards for democracy and proper governance.

Other countries in different regions also have powers. For example, in Africa countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia are more powerful compared to the other countries. This power gives them a voice among the developed countries, especially those with interests in Africa.

Doyle adds that Neorealism is a branch of Hans Morgenthau’s classical realism (215). Morgenthau argued that international politics was based on the egos and emotions of world leaders. Therefore, there was no ideal way of classifying democracy because leaders would always do what they wanted whenever they wanted, according to their egos and their interests at that time. Even though many scholars have liked Neorealism to classical realism, Hamati-Ataya explains that the two are separate in several ways (305).

The first and most crucial way is that the Neorealists believe that structural constraints determine international relations. Doyle explains that structural realism as, “competition and socialization under anarchy select for power-seeking ends and rational decision-making processes the way a competitive market selects for profit maximization” (215).

In addition, Neorealists believe that one of the most influential structural constraints is power. Newmann observes that it is not only the power that the state has over other states, but also the power that one leader has over another (17). In analyzing international politics in this manner, one will note that Neorealists are of the opinion that world wars are started simply to enhance or decrease power, thereby decreasing or increasing influence and political reach.

Neorealism and the origin of war

As mentioned, Neorealism states that power is very influential in international politics. War is also a part of international politics. In fact, war occurs when two or more states disagree on certain issues and the disagreement cannot be solved amicably. Neorealism can be used to explain the origins of war in several instances.

The first aspect of war that is discussed in Neorealism is anarchy. The anarchic principle relies on the decentralization of power. It means that there is no central power holding everything together. This principle can be used to explain war before the introduction of world superpowers. Many countries were creating coalitions and allies through trade before world superpowers came into being. There was no need for power and no anarchy, in some sense.

Power was decentralized in the world, and within the specific countries that were already formed. Anarchy sprouted with the exploitation process. Many wanted to see the other parts of the world believing that there was much to conquer. This is how the US was formed and even colonized. In the same breath, people moved out to other parts of the world, including Asia, Australia, and Africa (Kindsvatter 107). The invasion of land and privacy led to anarchy, slavery, and racism, among other things.

All these factors, in turn, helped propagate war. For example, the slaves that were taken were used as aides and soldiers in the war at times. In addition, the communities that were conquered realized that they had to fight for their freedom, leading to independence wars. Similarly, racism enhanced slavery and discrimination, allowing races that perceived themselves superior to mistreat the other races.

The second factor that ties Neorealism to war is power. This aspect comes in with the introduction of superpowers. Initially, there were two world superpowers; the USSR and USA (Palmer and Clifton 341). The main reason why the two were referred to as superpowers was the influence they had over international politics and war. The two countries had proven very useful in the first and the second world wars. They had come together to defeat Germany and its allies during both wars.

To show how influential they were, the two countries ensured that world non-governmental organizations put limits on Germany in order to avoid another war. Currently, looking at the powers that countries have, one will note that the countries believed to be most influential have power based on several things. For example, China is believed to be very powerful today. To some, it is more powerful than the US.

The main reason why this might be so is the economic prowess of China, given that the country has one of the strongest economies in the world. However, the US is also very powerful, as it influences many countries that China has interest in. For example, many developing countries have good relations with the US, yet the developing countries are the biggest market for China’s products.

It is due to these influences that the US is able to borrow money from the Chinese government and then allow the Chinese to do business with countries that are loyal to the US. In the same breath, it is crucial to point out that the power that the US has can end or start wars within a country. For example, the US and Bill Clinton’s presidency were blamed for the Rwandan genocide.

Even though the war was internal, the US being a superpower was expected to help save the lives of the Rwandan people. Failure to intervene led to a war that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

The third factor is interest, which goes hand in hand with power. Those who subscribe to the Neorealist school of thought argue that states can be very similar in terms of needs. For instance, despite the power of the US, there is still unemployment in the country. It is the same problem faced in South Africa, Asia, and Australia. The only difference between these countries is the ability to take care of their needs. This is why surveys are done to find out which countries have the highest levels of unemployment, and so forth.

Such ranges show the countries that are dealing with the needs better than others, making them more powerful in comparison to the others. The interest comes in when the US decides to help other countries lower their unemployment level. The US does this by offering green cards and giving jobs to several people who apply. However, as can be proven, the US does not help all countries. It chooses countries that it has interests in.

In explaining why it had not helped Rwanda, the US stated that it did not have any interest in Rwanda at that time. Additionally, the Cold War occurred due to interests and power (McPhearson 34). The USSR was advocating for communism, while the US was advocating for capitalism. The two countries divided the world into two blocs due to the difference in opinion. In the end, the US won the Cold War and countries that refused to accept the terms denoted by the US were punished through sanctions (Kindsvatter 119).


There have been a lot of criticisms regarding the use of Neorealism theory in explaining the origins of war. Hamati-Ataya argues that the main criticism is formed within those who subscribe to the school of thought (305). There are those Neorealists who argue that the theory can be used in explaining how states can seek security and not how wars are formed. The other group argues that the theory is best used to describe the origins of war.

Looking at the first group, they argue that power interest and anarchy are factors that can enhance peace if analyzed properly. For example, if two countries are on the verge of war, they should consider the interests they have with each other in order to stop the war. Britain was the most powerful nation on earth before the world wars. Its power came from colonization of numerous territories. However, it had to join forces with the US and USSR to defeat Germany and its allies.

The two countries agreed to help Britain, as long as they got the credit they deserved. This gave birth to the superpower status. Therefore, the above three countries came together based on their interests in one another. The USSR and the US never went to physical war against each other (McPhearson 67).

This could also be attributed to their interests in one another. The USSR agreed to embrace capitalism after losing the Cold War, even though it was not mandatory for it to do so. The main reason the USSR did this was its interests in the US and the allies of the US (Fromklin 78).

The second group in the Neorealism school of thought disputes this view by arguing that the identification of interests portrays weaknesses, which can be used to forge wars (Fromklin 99). Using this analysis, it can be argued that the only reason why China has not gone to war with the US is because both have the same amount of influence and interest in one another. The US will have more power than China in case the China’s interests in the US become more compared to the US interest in China.

Newmann adds that Neorealists argue that war is inevitable because anarchy cannot be avoided (19). It means that wars will be present even in the future. Scholars who argue that war can be avoided using diplomacy have criticized this argument. Currently, the only wars that are being fought are wars against terrorism.

Countries are not fighting each other, which is proof that war can be avoided. In the same breath, countries come together to help each other reduce chances of internal wars. For example, Saudi Arabia is helping Syria to fight the ISIS group that is threatening the stability of the country.

Additionally, it has been argued that Neorealism cannot be used in the post-Cold War era (Palmer and Clifton 332). Anarchy was still witnessed after the Cold War. However, even with the anarchy and the latest technology, the world has not experienced any form of major war since the Cold War. Therefore, the theory fails to explain how the world is still significantly peaceful with the presence of anarchy and, arguably, more reasons for war.


There are many theories that have been proposed to explain the origins of war. One of the most fundamental ones is Neorealism. The theory simply states that power is the most crucial factor in international politics, which is the driving force of war. The theory proposes that nations go to war to preserve power or gain power. In the last two world wars, countries fought to gain power. However, in the Cold War, countries were fighting to preserve power.

Neorealism also adds that there are two other factors that go hand in hand with international politics and war. The two factors are interest and anarchy. Scholars who subscribe to this school of thought explain that it is the presence of anarchy that causes war or the possibility of war.

Works Cited

Doyle, Michael W. Ways of War and Peace. New York, NY: Norton, 1997. Print

Fromklin, David. Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? New York: Vintage Books, 2005. Print.

Hamati-Ataya, Inanna. “Neorealism Reconsidered: Human Nature or State Behavior?.” International Studies Review 14.2 (2012): 303-307. Print.

Kindsvatter, Peter S. American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Print.

McPhearson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Newmann, William W. “A Strategic Approach to the Current War: Neorealism, Ideology, and Hegemony.” Conference Papers — Midwestern Political Science Association (2007): 1-26. Print.

Palmer, Glenn, and Morgan Clifton. “Power Transition, the Two-Good Theory, and Neorealism: A Comparison with Comments on Recent U.S. Foreign Policy.” International Interactions 33.3 (2007): 329-346. Print.

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